Pursuit of Truthiness

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The War to End All Wars

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The memory of the Great European War, of millions of young men fighting and dying to win a few yards of shell-pocked mud, was enough to convince many that war was an ugly, irrational, pointless endeavor which civilized nations should have the good sense to avoid in perpetuity.  They hoped that something good could emerge from the mass of suffering, that this worst of all wars would also be the last.

Modern minds, in the knowledge that this war would only be the First to earn the dubious honor of being a “world war”, have looked back on the inter-war idealism as hopelessly naive.  I myself have ridiculed their dream, and still do feel safe predicting that wars will be with us for some time yet.

But in some sense, the dreamers and pacifists were right.  World War One did not instantly bring perpetual peace.  But it was the beginning of the end for European war.

In the ninety years since World War One, only a single inter-state war has erupted in Western or Central Europe, and the prospect of another seems quite unlikely.  The length of the peace and the current absence of plausible threats to it marks a major departure from millenia of European history, a history often remembered as one war after another.

There remained only one detour on the road to peace.  World War Two would wrest from the First World War the grim title of deadliest war of all time.  New technology and extreme mobility meant that the Second World War would be fought very differently.  But while the how of the war was very different, the why was largely the same.  The unification of Germany fundamentally changed the geopolitical balance of Europe.  The Germans thought that their newfound strength deserved recognition.  The spirit of the age was one of imperialism and social Darwinism.  German philosophers had spent a century glorifying the will to power and dismissing morality as born of slavery and meant for the weak.

Before each World War, the geopolitical situation of a rising Germany able to dominate its neighbors combined with a philosophical and ideological situation which made Germans willing to invade their neighbors.  Just as with previous attempts by the Hapsburgs and the French to establish European hegemony, Germany’s naked desire to dominate the Continent inspired her neighbors, individually less powerful that her, to form coalitions able to defeat her.  Geopolitics functioned as always.  Fundamental change came not when the European map was redrawn for the thousandth time, but when the hearts and minds of Europeans were realigned.

Human beings are naturally aggressive, and tend to cluster into groups distrustful of outsiders.  A disposition toward war is bred into our very beings.  It is there in babies jealous for food, there in children fighting in streets and in playgrounds.  This tendency from our nature requires a strong dose of “nurture” if it is to be overcome.  Instead many children of the time learned from parents and teachers that war was honorable and glorious and that other countries were untrustworthy and must be taught respect.  Nurture, rather than fighting the worst tendencies of nature, reinforced them.

World War One drove people to deeply question the beliefs that allowed such a war to take place.  Germany had sent a generation to die on French soil and gained nothing.  Germans questioned their beliefs, but in the end elected a man who give their beliefs one more try, saying in essence- we had the right idea, we just didn’t try hard enough.  So they did try harder, they even succeeded in conquering France.  But a second defeat, this time with Germany not only bled dry but also bombed out and occupied, finally convinced them.  They didn’t need to fight harder, or come up with a better plan of invasion; they needed a total gestalt shift.  They needed to look at their neighbors and see people like themselves, people who could be lived with.

You put you hand into a fire and it gets burned.  You might wonder if your technique of fire-touching was incorrect.  The more scientifically minded way wonder if fire caused pain or was only sometimes correlated with it.  But if you get burned again, and worse than the first time, you learn your lesson, and stop touching the flame, lest it consume you.  It took two World Wars, but Germany and Europe along with them learned their lesson.  The next geopolitical imbalance, pitting the U.S. and Western Europe against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, lasted forty years, but saw no no major war.  The Americans and the Russians had learned along with Europe, and saw major wars in Europe as a very last resort.  Gone were the days when a European nation would dare to, or even desire to invade their neighbor.

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Written by James Bailey

July 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm

Immigration Reform

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Most of you who know me probably know that I’ve spent a lot of time in the conservative movement. Growing up watching American television and going to Bangor schools left me with a general wash of liberal assumptions; once I learned to consider these dispassionately, I found that the consistent conservative principles I read about and heard on the radio made a lot more sense. And so by my freshman year of high school I was strong conservative, in the sense of the modern American movement that will always be exemplified in my mind by Rush Limbaugh. Now I read the more diverse and intellectual National Review, founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley; it is the magazine that converted conservativism’s most effective political champion, Ronald Reagan. This last year I served as vice-chairman of the College Republicans at the University of Tulsa.

I’ve become much less vocal and less sure of my political views in college; I no longer accept conservative positions wholesale. But I still agree with many of them, and even when I disagree I can at least understand why rational people could be on the other side.

Until now, that is. Those who care about politics at all should know that there is currently a comprehensive immigration reform bill before the senate, one that will simultaneously deal with border enforcement, immigration laws, and the status of the 12-20 million people here illegally. It is a compromise bill, one that no one really likes; it is being supported in the senate by Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, John Kyl, and John McCain, and in the White House by George Bush himself. It is being opposed on the left, I hear, for being to hard on illegals and for changing immigration policies to favor education over family reunification. And it is opposed on the right by the entire hard-core conservative movement for giving “amnesty” to illegals and for failing to protect the border. George Bush, it seems, was unhappy with his 30% approval ratings and decided to alienate the only constituency that has consistently supported him for the last 7 years.

Now to the real point of the post: why do conservatives oppose amnesty for illegal aliens? We can come up with some dark theories, such as:

1) people scared of getting deported are willing to work for lower wages

2) once illegals become citizens, they will all vote for democrats

3) conservatives are are just racist and don’t want so many mexicans in their country

President Bush himself has implied that he thinks the third. I think its a bad idea to impugn people’s motives like this; never to attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance. Furthermore, I think I can say from personal experience that these are not real concerns to most conservatives.

No, the real reason is about the rule of law. We don’t want to reward people for breaking the law, for insulting those who came here legally and those who are in long lines waiting to do so. We don’t want to show people that if they too come here illegally, they will eventually be pardoned.

There are some other concerns too, like illegals driving down wages and taking public services like schools, hospitals and welfare without paying taxes. I can understand the nativist-wages argument, though I have no sympathy with it; nativism is utterly hypocritical in a country of immigrants like the United States. As for taxes, the easiest way to get them to pay is to declare an amnesty! Make them citizens and they’ll have to pay; we can even make paying back taxes a condition of citizenship. But these arguments don’t really do the work.

It’s really about the rule of law. I really do sympathize with the rule of law argument in theory; but no one wants to say how it can lead to a solution in reality. It is only being used to knock down proposed solutions, never to set them up. We can criticize the newest plan all we want; but if we shoot it down, we will be left with the status quo; 12 million people here illegally, living in the darkness of black markets, but still subject to what John McCain calls a “de facto amnesty”. So what can we do? All most conservatives will say on this point is, “start enforcing the laws.”

Again, a great idea in theory. It would have worked wonderfully after the last amnesty in 1986. But what would it look like in reality? To we send the police through neighborhoods, asking for ID’s, rounding up people and deporting them by the millions? Do we wait for them to come into the open, getting a few thousand a day, making people afraid of going to work, to school, to the hospital? All for the crime of wanting to live and work in our country?

I, for one, couldn’t stomach seeing America turn into that much of a police state for such a trivial reason. If we could restrain ourselves from a mass deportation of Arabs after the crime of 9/11, I think we can avoid a mass deportation of Mexicans for the crime of cleaning our houses and picking our fruit.

I can respect the few people who think through what their enforcement position means and still support it; that’s a legitimate disagreement about how big an issue this is. But I think that most conservatives are simply trying to deny reality on this one.

Written by James Bailey

June 11, 2007 at 2:41 am

Flat Tax

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I was listening to a talk by Alvin Rabushka, one of the first advocates of a flat tax, available at http://www.econtalk.org/

I had of course heard of the idea before; we replace the current 66,000 page tax code, with all of its exemptions, loopholes and varying marginal rates, and we implement instead a single, simple rate that applies to everyone. Under the current system, people can get a net refund, or pay as much as 35% of their income; depending on how much they make, or really how much it looks like they make after all the allowances and exemptions are made.

In order for the tax to be “revenue-neutral”, that is, for that government to take in the same amount of revenue under a flat tax as it does now, the rate would have to be about 19%. The corporate tax rate, currently at 35%, would also be reduced to 19%.

It sounds great; but I’m sure you can think of some objections. Maybe some of those exemptions were there for a good reason; like charitable deductions and mortgage interest-rate deductions. Secondly, it is not a progressive tax. It amounts to raising taxes on the poor and middle-class, while lowering them on the rich.

Rabushka addresses the deductions; but I never thought they were that important. The progressivity though is a big deal, especially when you consider the politics of actually getting it passed. So until I listened to this, I never thought that a flat tax could happen in the US.

But I didn’t quite understand the system. It is not truly flat- there is still an allowance for those who make under $40,000. So the poor and the lower-middle class pay 0% income tax. Does this mean a lot of companies will start paying $39,999; not so! I thought so before, but the idea is that you would only start paying income tax on the income earned after the first $40,000; So someone making $50,000 would pay not $10,000 but $2,000. In fact, no one would really pay the flat tax rate on all their income; they would just asymptotically approach the rate as their incomes approached infinity.

Even after these allowances, 19% is revenue-neutral. That’s how many deductions we have under the current system! Imagine all the changes this could bring- people could file their taxes, literally, in five minutes using a postcard. Tens of thousands of very intelligent people who work as tax consultants would be forced into more productive occupations. A great source of corruption and interest-group lobbying will be cut away; corporate welfare will have to occur in the open. All sorts of inefficiencies incentivized by the current system will disappear.

All that said, I think I’m for it now.

It’s great to hear about how much success flat tax systems are having abroad; they have been adopted mostly by former Soviet states, starting with Estonia. They have been most effective in combatting two things which are issues in America and huge problems in many developing countries- capital flight and tax evasion. Rabushka seems to see himself as a sort of king in exile, raising support abroad in the hopes that he will be able to return triumphantly to his home one day. If Americans see it succeed in enough foreign countries, he hopes, they will one day see the light.

Written by James Bailey

June 6, 2007 at 2:51 am